My imaginary "either/or" problem

At some point in my editing, I got into my head that it was generally redundant to have “either” in a phrase with “or” in it.
I didn’t think it was necessarily correct, and I’m sure it’s not something I invented, so I must have been told such a tale, likely one with a specific example that morphed within my mind into law. But it’s always bugged me whenever I’ve encountered this situation in my editing.

I’ve been thinking about it more lately, as well as the importance of context. For instance …

Sometimes, I think, “either” is an unnecessary word. For example.

“The congressman plans to make an announcement on Thursday or Friday, sources say.”

Here, the connotation is clear that he won’t do both, but the congressman could also pick another day, and he/she could make no announcement. It’s not a closed list of possibilities. “Either” isn’t wrong, really, but is it a word saved? I think so.

Sometimes, though, “either” changes the meaning. To whit:

“Will George or Allen be attending?”

To my ear, this sentence implies a lack of knowledge of the parties; both may wish to attend, or either one, or neither. Placing “either” at least implies that the answer must, and can only be, one of them wishing to attend. Conversely, one’s meaning could be such that “either” is imperative in the example sentence. Context, context.

In case you’re wondering, “Working With Words” and AP Stylebook don’t seem to address these issues head-on — possibly because “either” would not make any of these examples indecipherable. And strictly grammatically, I could be wrong. I’m instead approaching this from a usability standpoint, but disagreement is welcome.

Again, this isn’t something that appears to be that difficult, except to me, perhaps. Using “neither/nor” correctly is often a bigger challenge. Still, it’s a reminder to rethink occasionally why we’re editing the way we are, lest we fall into the traps of our own wayward minds.

3 thoughts on “My imaginary "either/or" problem

  1. I don't hear your two examples the same way you do. To me, the congressman example in no way implies that he/she will pick another day or not make an announcement. I agree that “either” in this sentence is unnecessary.

    Your second example is interesting because the questioner could be asking (1) whether either man is attending (implying that the speaker is not certain whether one, the other, or both will be present); or (2) which of the two men will be attending (implying that the speaker is certain one will be present but doesn't know which one). If the question were spoken, you could tell which meaning was intended based on the inflection of “or” and whether the speaker paused slightly before saying “or Allen.”

    I disagree that adding “either” implies the answer is one man or the other. The problem is that “either” can mean “being the one AND the other” or “being the one OR the other” (per MW11).

    Without further elaboration (and outside of a spoken context), the meaning of the second example is inscrutable.



  2. Thanks for the comment.
    The 2nd example, or something like it, popped up more when I was at a newspaper (as opposed to the summaries I edit now). Sometimes, unfortunately, the reporter couldn't remember how it was spoken.
    I also wrote this (on purpose) when I was tired after a day of editing and admittedly not sharp, so your insight is appreciated. It's interesting to see how that affects my thought process.


  3. 1) “Will either George or Allen be attending?” suggests to me that the answer “no, neither will” or “both will” is quite likely.

    2) “Will George or Allen be attending?” delivered in a uniform tone of voice is synonymous with 1); “either” is redundant.

    but if a slight emphasis is placed on the two names, the implication, to my ear, would be that either one or the other is expected. However the answer “they both will” or “no neither can make it,” though less likely, would still not sound out of place.

    “Will either `George or `Allen be attending?” wilth emphasis on the names sounds strange; I don't think anyone would say it.

    But I don't think any way of saying it would be the logician's XOR, absolutely excluding the 'both' or 'neither' possibilities.

    As for the congressman: yes, it would normally be assumed that he wouldn't make the same announcement on both days, so again “either” is not needed.


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